Tax Analysts Blog

Should Tax Officials Speak at Closed Events?

Posted on Jul 8, 2015

Working for a media organization that covers taxes certainly has its perks. It’s a fast-paced environment in which every day is different. We are constantly looking for breaking news and take our job to report on important tax-related events seriously. And whether or not anyone else agrees, tax is a fantastic beat.

Still, it’s not easy to report on taxes, and the reporters at Tax Notes have noticed a disturbing trend lately. Government speakers are increasingly asking, or are willing, to speak at events that are closed to the press.

Just last week, a Tax Analysts reporter got kicked off a webcast in which a state commissioner of revenue was speaking. There was no prior indication that the event was closed, and the webcast was produced by a law firm. But an attempt by our reporter to sign into it was met with a screen that said his session had ended.

A few months ago, a university tried to prevent a reporter from covering an event where IRS and Treasury Department officials were speaking. The reporter was eventually allowed to cover it , but only after much arguing about the propriety of closing an event with government speakers discussing important tax topics.

As a caveat to this, I have to acknowledge that the IRS is generally respectful of the role of the press at events, and IRS officials have declined to speak if an event is closed. More government agencies and officials should take the same approach.

Tax officials must acknowledge that compliance stems from trust and that taxpayer trust stems from knowledge. The media’s ability to fully cover tax legislation, implementing regulation, tax-related court cases, and general discussions on tax issues directly leads to taxpayer knowledge, which in turn leads to taxpayer trust. When government officials speak to select groups, it leads those outside the groups to believe they are less important or less informed. Either way, their trust in the system is compromised.

I want to go on the record and say that it is improper for a state department of revenue, as well as federal tax officials, to make high-level public officials available to speak at an invitation-only meeting from which the press is excluded. The public should not look favorably on a government offering preferential treatment to a professional services firm or any other group so that only their clients and special invitees can hear what an official has to say about important tax topics.

Read Comments (3)

justa thoughtJul 8, 2015

Cara, I get your point. But your argument assumes that the press shares
everything it learns from government officials. In reality the press covers
whatever is good for the press based on its own judgement. You refer to it as
breaking news in the second sentence of your blog (not just "news" but
"breaking news." So if the press can CHOOSE what is breaking news why can't
government officials CHOOSE its audience?
Further, the press has more access to government officials than the common
man. If I have a question for a government official, I have to go through many
hoops. If I want to just visit a state house (forget about asking questions) I
have to wait months. However, I constantly see the press traveling with
officials and even enjoying "off the record" time. So if a government official
wants to spend time with constituents other than the press at closed events,
what is so wrong with that? If the common man is closed out of events that the
press is allowed (say a press briefing or access to state houses with a press
badge) then why not have the press closed out of a briefing? Let the press get
breaking news from the public for a change. It will give the press some extra
time to work on its stories and look for more breaking news. I do not think
the government is "offering preferential treatment" when it honors a press
badge and the press should not think the public is getting preferential
treatment at closed events. Does it matter who gets the breaking news as long
as it is shared?

david brunoriJul 8, 2015

Justa thought,

The real problem that Cara highlights is that private parties will have access
to government officials. The parties and officials will be able to make policy
and decisions with less public scrutiny. that is bad for tax policy; it is not
good government.

In our experience, when the press is absent, government officials make
statements and sometime promises they would never do publicly.

And please remember that events we are discussing are run by special interests
-- usually tax lawyers and accountants. They have much gain from private access
to government officials. And the public has much to lose.

edmund dantesJul 10, 2015

Reminds me of the bad old days before Tax Analysts was able to force the IRS to
make private letter rulings available to the public, with taxpayer ID
redacted. Some tax firms used their trove of private rulings obtained for
clients as a lever to drum up more business, based upon insider knowledge.
Bad, bad, bad.

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